Sunday, April 11, 2010

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Liam Neeson said that he took the role of Zeus in Louis Leterrier's remake of Clash of the Titans because his sons love Greek mythology. When they saw the film, or even its predecessor, I wonder if one of them whispered to their father in the first minute, "Dad, the Kraken isn't Greek." No, not only is the Kraken not of Greek origin, it's not even a creature of ancient mythology, a combination of similar, fabled sea monsters of Norse sagas c. 12th century A.D. updated and given its first concrete classification all the way in 1735 by Carolus Linnaeus before being cemented into modern myth 20 years later by Erik Pontoppidan, the bishop of Bergen. According to Clash of the Titans, the Kraken was created by Hades to overthrow the titans, and along with it the thrilling complexities of Greek legend.

Why does Hollywood insist on altering Greek mythology for the purposes of making it "cooler"? After all, considering its appropriation by the Romans, the Greek lore was the mythology so nice, they used it twice. The Disneyfication of lore makes sense for the animated Hercules, precisely because it's too damn wild for children: in the actual mythology, the blackness of Chaos bore the first Titans, most importantly Gaia (Earth), who asexually conceived and gave birth to a son, Ouranos, who took his mother for his wife. Eventually, Gaia grew so outraged with her son-husband's domineering madness that she had one of her sons, Cronus, castrate him. Cronus married his sister and took his father’s place, eating all of his offspring out of fear save Zeus, hidden away by his mother. Eventually, Zeus revealed himself and poisoned his father into vomiting up the other gods, who overthrew their parents and imprisoned the Titans in Tartarus. And this is just the tip of the iceberg: the lore is thick with deceit, incest, wrath, jealousy and murder. In other words, it is almost exactly like French history.

I suppose it’s inevitable that Clash of the Titans should be so careless with its source material (its fundamental source material, that is), given the fact that at no point during the film does a Titan rear its gigantic head, much less clash with something or someone. When the first round of promotional material for the film slipped onto the Internet, the attached tagline, "Titans Will Clash" was met with well-earned derision, and when it slipped from the next batch of posters and trailers, one might reasonably have assumed that the studio backpedaled from the reception of the previous ads. Maybe they were just afraid of being sued for false advertisement.

To harp on that subject further, though, would be pointless, as the original Clash also lacked Titans. That appears to have slipped the minds of some of the more outraged critics sharpening their xiphos in preparation for battle; perhaps many do not remember the absence of titular clashers in the original because the original is itself so unmemorable, given a niche in film history solely for the effects of Ray Harryhausen. Tellingly, Harryhausen's remarkable stop-motion creatures are the only significant aspect of the first not to make its way into Leterrier's update, which ports over the cheesy dialogue, ludicrous narrative and wooden acting, as if to say that the negatives of cinema are timeless; its the innovation that fades.

So, yes, we still follow Perseus (Sam Worthington), mortal son of Zeus, cast into the sea with his murdered mother by the king she cuckolded. Rescued by a fisherman, Spyros (Pete Postlethwaite), who immediately launches into outraged platitudes toward the cruel gods, Perseus grows up to be a simple fisher, but even his adoptive father knows that the boy is destined for great things. Then the family finds themselves beside a cliff where soldiers from Argos topple a statue of Zeus in defiance of the gods. Hades rises from the depths, kills the soldiers and turns his sights on the innocent family's boat, killing Perseus' father, mother and sister. All of this occurs in the film just a bit faster than it took you to read this paragraph.

The rest of the film bounds along at this breathless pace, introducing a sliver of exposition in time to launch into another action segment, which itself is too brief and frenetic to properly engage the audience -- that damn Kraken appears in full-form for less than a minute -- before settling down into the next half-hearted setup. Perseus teams up with the god-hating Argives to defy Olympus and protect the city from destruction in retribution for their heresy, moving from a forest where he must fight his biological mother's mutilated husband, head out to the desert to meet Djinn (that's from Arabic mythology, right?) and fight off giant scorpions (um), go to the underworld, yadda yadda yadda.

Titans moves through these sequences as if ticking off items on a checklist, pausing only to let loose the sort of hysterically overbearing dialogue that practically defines these swords-and-sandals romps. Spyros kicks off the proceedings with his impromptu rant at the gods brought on by a fishing dry spell: "One day, somebody's going to have to say 'enough,'" he cries, apparently so green at his life's profession that he doesn't understand that the fish just don't bite sometimes. Had this been set in contemporary times, Spyros might easily have been one of those hyperbolic golfers who attributes every slice and near-miss to the cruel intervention of forces who apparently have nothing better to do than fuck with a peon. Everyone speaks in a tone of voice that suggests he or she is rallying the troops; didn't anyone in the mythological world ever just mosey on over to the town well for a light conversation, a nice chat about the Hydra someone's kid killed or the results of last night's Olympic match? Sam Worthington, who uttered last year's heavyweight champion Worst Line -- "Now I know what death tastes like" -- in Terminator Salvation manages to avoid the worst of the clangers, but he has to spend the entire film shunning the god in him, insisting on carrying out his tasks "as a man" until someone slaps some sense into him.

All of the actors look bored, as if they'd understood the cheesiness of the script and thought it would translate into a more raucous piece of entertainment. But as they traveled to various locations filled with the same sharp, rocky landscapes, so nondescript that one almost wishes they'd simply used CGI sets to cut down on the carbon emissions of all those plane rides, the gears started turning and each of the cast slowly came to the grim realization of how dull this picture really is. Worthington, still locked into his increasingly thin portrayal of a reluctant but determined hero, is as stony as all those statues that litter this ancient world, and if he did succumb to the Medusa when he enters her lair, I don't know that anyone would have been able to tell. Alexa Davalos plays Andromeda, the beautiful princess of Argos, whose sacrifice the gods demand for the forgiveness of the city, and her immediate willingness to die for her people somewhat takes the wind out the sails for the dramatic buildup of the rest of the film. Liam Neeson looks pleased enough to be there, but perhaps only because he shares most of his scenes with Ralph Fiennes, giving him a constant visual reminder that someone had it worse than him. Fiennes hisses more as Hades, lord of the underworld, than he does as the serpentine Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter films. Dressed, amazingly, uproariously, in a fashion that resembles John Travolta's get-up in Battlefield Earth, Fiennes does not inspire terror so much as giggles.* He understandably looks eager to get off the set, though in that outfit maybe it's so he can audition to be in a black metal band that writes songs inspired by Lord of the Rings.

There are a few nice touches, to be fair. If Leterrier insists on casting aside Harryhausen's marvelous animation in favor of big CGI that doesn't look any better and is too haphazardly edited to be identified anyway, he at least did us the service of omitting Bubo, the R2-D2-esque robot owl from the original; Bubo even makes an appearance in an Argos armory, only to be thrown out of the picture when a soldier pressures Perseus to "just leave it." Andromeda spends the film either on her way to be dangled as bait for the gods' appeasement or finally on the rack, but the audience likely won't care either way about her thanks to the far more arresting character of Io. An ageless mortal who watches over Perseus, Io has a wit and a spark that no one else in the film approaches, and Gemma Arterton acts well beyond her 24 years, to the point that even her gorgeous looks have an air of maturity to them. And despite the general laziness of the action scenes, the Medusa sequence is genuinely entertaining. Like the rest of the scenes, it's too short, but at no other point in the film does Leterrier create and maintain a sense of tension and atmosphere.

It's a shame that filmmakers constantly flub Greek mythology, as it's the most interesting of all the major religions, old or new. Modern theologies posit all-powerful deities to be feared and worshipped incessantly, at once benevolent and wrathful. The Greeks, however, made their gods more human, not simply though the act of anthropomorphizing them through art but in simple conception. For them, gods were arrogant and inbred, capable of walking among their creations but never truly seeing them. The gods fear their children: they overthrew their parents, so naturally they fear a similar fate (remember that Zeus attempted to murder his own wife and child until Athena burst full-grown from his head). Clash of the Titans flirts with this astonishing notion, of the way that generations build off the last and better themselves instead of fade as increasingly faulty copies of a perfect original like CDs and swapped music files from a crisp master tape, but it does not follow through. It pays lip service to how "badass" it would be to fight monsters, ignoring that which is truly awe-inspiring: the fact that, if sufficiently motivated, a human can challenge the gods themselves.

*It would be nice, though, if someone would stop making Hades out to always be a villain just to make things easier for a crowd primarily raised on a new mythology by equating Hades to Satan. Hades is far more passive a figure in the legends, dispassionately maintaining balance instead of actively usurping and murdering. Death holds no grudges.


  1. Yes there are some nice touches, and I didn't find it an absolute abomination, giving it 3 of 5. I was in a generous mood that day. But yes the actors appeared bored and before the splendid Medussa set piece in the final third, it was plodding to say the least. i didn't feel that 3 D added anything here.

  2. Hey,
    looks like you are absolutely peeved about the 'alteration of greek mythology' thing :). I thought that Leterrier was a wrong choice for fantasy. The concept has much potential but at the end of it, for me this was a harmless one-time watch which I will forget by the time next heavybudget releases.

  3. I can't quite summon the will to see this. Not even the promise of Sam Worthington scantily clad can get me there.

  4. Thanks for good this movie..